Azerbaijan International

Spring 1995 (3.1)
Pages 6-8

Baku Diary
The Music Scene

by Susan Cornnell

Above: Dance and traditional Instrumental groups performing at concerts in Baku. December 1994. Photos: Oleg Litvin.

These past two and half years since I've been living in Baku, I've attended nearly every major musical event in the city - from traditional mugam concerts to jazz quartets, symphonies, opera, and ballet. But these days, with few exceptions, a certain lethargy has settled over the music scene. Performances are, for the most part, poorly attended. It's take a pretty stellar performance to bring out a crowd.

Not too long ago, I bought four tickets to an evening of mugham, Azerbaijani traditional folk singing (see Azerbaijan International, 2:2, Summer 1994). When I arrived, the box office lights were blazing but the opera theater was closed. "We've been waiting for you," they told me. "The concert has been canceled. You bought half the tickets and we wanted to give you a refund" ( a total sum of about 40 cents).

People give lots of reasons why the concert halls are empty. They say, maybe, it's not proper to participate in such pleasure when so many people are suffering from the war and there are so many refugees. Others claim all the major star performers have left the country for "greener pastures". Some complain that the repertoire is too limited and they've already seen every work-many times. The costumes are threadbare and worn; the props, dilapidated and torn. Add to that, the performance halls are cold: you sit there freezing in a building which has no central heating. And the list goes on.

Vibrant Musical Tradition
Azerbaijanis have a long and robust musical heritage from the strolling minstrels ashugs who traveled from village to village singing and playing the saz (an instrument that looks like a lute but sounds more like a banjo) to the modern-day jazz artists. Azerbaijanis and music seem to be inextricably tied. They pride themselves that the first opera in the Muslim World was composed in Azerbaijan in 1908 by Uzeyir Hajibeyov (Leyli and Majnun).

Once I attended a Young People's Concert and a group was performing on the traditional national instruments-balaban (wind instrument which is played to sound like a bagpipe), and stringed instruments, tar and saz. Some four-year old boys leaped from their seats and began an impromptu folk dance on the steps just below the stage. It must be something genetic, somehow music is in the Azerbaijani blood.

It seems every home has a piano. In fact, Azerbaijanis have admitted feeling inferior if they can't perform some kind of music on quite a sophisticated level.

Photo: Empty Hall of Philharmonic - typical for 1994. Photo by Blair

Ballet and Dance
For me, the exotic East as personified in Gara Garayev's Seven Beauties Ballet or Fikret Amirov's 1,001 Nights is vibrant and dynamic. I've seen these ballets five times and they become more enchanting each time. Children enter right into the mysterious tales and delight in going backstage to meet the ballerinas who gracefully receive guests. No prima donnas, these dancers are hard-working, poorly-paid young lads and lasses who are trying to keep a dying art alive.

The national dances of Azerbaijan are simply exhilarating. There are so many styles and costumes, each a different theme from the "romp 'em", "stomp 'em", whirling dervish, Turkish-style dances to the evocative and elegant women's dances. I've seen folk dances from all over the world. It's not hard to become enchanted by an evening of sensuous hand movements, tinkling bells and flowing silk.

Photo: Members of the Jujularim Drumming Group - 1994

Music Reflects Synthesis
Here in Baku, it seems that the best traditions of East and West come together-a little bit of India in the finger cymbals, a little bit of Russia in the serious leather boots stomping and kicking. The other night I attended a concert celebrating Finnish Independence Day and Azerbaijan's a cappella choir sang in Finnish. It was amazing!

There are music schools all over town-elementary schools, high schools, clubs and classes after school, college and the Academy. Walk down the street for just a short stretch, and you're likely to pass a teenager boy with a zurna (a wind instrument) sticking out of his book bag. Here and there musical clefs are etched on windows, and you're sure to hear someone practicing opera or classical piano.

Spirit of Improvisation
I've seen many Azerbaijanis listen to a tune only once and then be able to play it back, improvising and improving upon it. We, westerners, are so accustomed to having a written copy of everything from recipes to phone numbers and musical scores. These folks don't always have access to such and, therefore, seem to be particularly adept at improvising. That's true even when their instruments break. One of the clarinetists in the symphony orchestra went years repairing his own reed mouthpiece until an American conductor presented him with half a dozen new reeds. In Baku performers keep their own musical scores. Naturally, many of the pages become tattered and torn from years of practice and performance. If pages are missing, they have to recall the gaps from memory. Access to copy machines is still very limited.

Unlike the formality of concerts in the West, here there is an atmosphere of congeniality before the concerts begin. Musicians, dressed in white ties and tails, mingle with concert-goers near the coat check, "smoking up a storm" and making small talk. Eventually, the musicians start wandering on stage and warming up. (You can be sure they'll be late). After a while the twinkling chandelier lights soften and a marvelous concert begins.

Every time I sit shivering in a nearly empty concert hall, I pray this isn't the last time these notes will ring out. I dream of a true renaissance of the arts where sponsors emerge to encourage these young artists. Then once again people will fill the theaters, the opera house and concert halls and applaud the musicians who have dedicated their lives to perpetuating the extraordinary and unique musical culture of Azerbaijan.

Susan Cornnell is a regular columnist in Azerbaijan International.

From Azerbaijan International (3.1) Spring 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.

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